Tunnelers vs. Torpedoes: Seattle's stormy political weather

In pushing for a referendum on the tunnel, Mayor McGinn may have crossed a line in his insurgency against the political order. Two modes of coping with his challenge, patience and leave-it-to-the-council, seem to have run their course. What's next?

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Mayor-elect Mike McGinn on Election Night

In pushing for a referendum on the tunnel, Mayor McGinn may have crossed a line in his insurgency against the political order. Two modes of coping with his challenge, patience and leave-it-to-the-council, seem to have run their course. What's next?

Seattle politics continues to be badly out of sorts, with little signs of settling down. The main disruption stems from the unusual situation where you have Mayor Mike McGinn in open defiance of the major alignment of political power — unions, developers, the moderate enviros, big business, "downtown," and what remains of "the establishment" — on the central issue of the waterfront tunnel. You have to go all the way back to the first years of the Charles Royer administration, 1977-80, to find such a chasm (also largely over transportation). This city is not good at dealing with such a split. It makes major political progress almost impossible, despite these being trying economic times.

For the past year, one big hope for getting this important political and cultural war between Tunnelers and Torpedoes settled has been to cut the new mayor some slack, figuring that once he realized that he was not going to win, everyone could turn the page and start working on issues where there was basic consensus (school reform, bike lanes, more transit, more workforce housing in emerging neighborhoods, clean-tech, the waterfront park design, and climate-change-based urban planning). The hope was to let time pass, after which a rookie mayor normally hires a more experienced staff, settles the big rifts with some tradeoffs, and things revert to the usual Seattle consensus. No such luck.

McGinn has clearly modulated his offensive style, but he's just digging in deeper on the tunnel issue. He now seems intent on finding ways to keep the warfare hot, shifting to some new fronts for waging it. The latest political skirmish is the push for a referendum on the City Council's 8-1 votes signing off on the plans with the state for the tunnel (and then overriding McGinn's veto).

Using the referendum (rather than some initiatives), the McGinnites can rally, raise all the old issues, and shift the argument from cost-overruns (which seems to have run its course) to "giving the people a say." Another new twist: positioning the tunnel supporters as greedy plutocrats stealing bread from the poor and the neighborhoods (the Golden Oldie of Seattle politics).

The Tunnel Grand Alliance naturally fears the referendum, and will probably get it tossed out in the courts. (It has at least two legal problems: pre-empting a state project with a city vote, and overturning what can be construed as an administrative implementation of an earlier policy decision.) I imagine the City Council will refer the matter to the voters, though the council could abide by a legal determination that it's not referable. I expect the referendum would pass. Given the multiple plans for the Viaduct and the years of bitter feelings, no plan can probably get a majority from the Seattle voters. Still, it would be a brutal battle.

The real problem is that the referendum keeps the guns blazing away in this issue for more months, extending over into the fall City Council elections. It keeps McGinn's base of tunnel-torpedoes in high dudgeon, seizing on all kinds of issues to further polarize the city. (Next is likely legal challenges to the EIS.) And as the Tunnelers will be forced to escalate the warfare, they will be fitted with all kinds of black hats, their motives discredited, their entrenched power resented. The Tunnelers will likely respond with more "damn-the-torpedoes" inflexibility, depicting the McGinnites as anti-car elitists tossing away jobs and $2 billion of state money. All the while Rome continues to burn.

Seattle is a consensus-seeking political culture. When we have had big cultural wars before, such as the battle over the Pike Place Market in 1970, the losing side normally scampers quickly to the middle. Mayor Wes Uhlman, for instance, was on the pro-urban-renewal side of the Market initiative, as was the establishment. But within weeks of the voter rejection of the urban renewal scheme, saving the Market, Uhlman and others had embraced the Market and the broader cause of historic preservation. (That's how Pioneer Square came to be saved.) The same quick moving-on took place after two other political-cultural showdowns, over the Commons and the Monorail.

By now, McGinn is completely isolated on this issue — from the Legislature, the governor, the county executive, labor, the city council, the mainstream media, and business. But he fights on, even enlarging the arena of combat. You have to admire his principled stubbornness.

Which brings me to the second hope of getting through this Great War: the city council. When the inept Gov. Dixy Lee Ray was in Olympia (1977-81), the action soon passed to the barons of the Legislature. Can that happen with the Seattle City Council? During the past year, that has indeed largely happened. Gov. Gregoire has broken off diplomatic relations with McGinn and now deals directly with the council on tunnel matters and other issues. The council has held its 8-1 majority together on the tunnel (Mike O'Brien is the odd man out). They have never been as unified, thanks to McGinn, and the members hold each other in mostly high regard.

Tunnel aside, however, this is a cautious, feel-good council. It's not a good sign when a council has to try to initiate any kind of bold executive action. The natural disposition of a Seattle City Councilmember is to seek to be loved by all sides, and to lay on years of process in that cause. And we face the same danger with the becalmed Seattle School District, where the board has had to step in. Joni Balter of The Seattle Times has a good phrase for this phase: "Seattle's leadership lull."

A second adverse dynamic is that other natural disposition of the council member: a burning desire to be mayor. For a while, there has been an informal truce, with Tim Burgess accorded the preemptive rights to run, thereby keeping other ambitions at bay. That's now breaking down. In the last week I spoke both with Councilmembers Sally Clark and Bruce Harrell about their mayoral ambitions, once they get past a reelection vote this fall. They are both pretty open about their ambitions to be mayor, neither saying (though with due words of praise for Burgess) that they would defer to him.

Part of this rivalry comes from the perceived vulnerability of McGinn, stirring ambitions in many breasts. Part comes from the way Burgess has spent this past year muting his differences with McGinn and trying not to appear over-eager for being mayor. (He's also been busy avoiding getting "Sidranized," or defined as too conservative for Seattle as happened with Mark Sidran in the 2001 race.) Burgess has not nailed down the front-runner position.

All this means that neither of the plans for smothering and absorbing the McGinn challenge to Seattle's political order — turning the other cheek until the mayor matures, or government-by-council — is likely to be effective. Nor is the case being made yet for an electable alternative to McGinn's new-era politics.

This is an unstable political weather system. What might the resolution? Bring back Mayor Nickels? A local Michael Bloomberg? A semi-outsider like Sen. Ed Murray joining the issue on transportation? A soothing candidate who is loved by all and listens to all? Major backlash? Or just more muddling through and expecting Mayor McGinn to prove his own worst enemy?


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